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State To Sue Over 'No Child' Law

April 6, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Connecticut raised the stakes in its dispute with federal education officials over school testing Tuesday, pledging to become the first state to file a lawsuit challenging the government's No Child Left Behind Act.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced plans to sue the U.S. Department of Education for requiring Connecticut to expand its student testing program without providing enough money to cover the cost.

Blumenthal announced the lawsuit as state officials prepared to issue a report today saying that No Child Left Behind - the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda - will cost local school districts hundreds of millions of dollars by 2008.

The lawsuit could have nationwide implications, with other states considering similar challenges, some educators said. Blumenthal said that he is contacting other states to join him but declined to say which ones.

"This law is outrageously wrong. ... It is fundamentally flawed," Blumenthal said. "The stakes here are huge."

The new tests are expected to cost the state $8 million more by 2008 than the $23 million the federal government has doled out. A recent state analysis found that federal aid under No Child Left Behind will fall more than $40 million short by 2008 of what the state needs to spend to fulfill all parts of the law.

Connecticut's 20-year-old mastery test of fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders is regarded as among the most rigorous in the nation, but U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has said that it is not sufficient to meet requirements of No Child Left Behind. Last month, Spellings rejected the state's request for a waiver of the law's requirement to expand testing to also include grades 3, 5 and 7.

Blumenthal said that the lawsuit would be filed in federal court but did not say when, adding only that "action is imminent."

The announcement drew a sharp response from the U.S. Department of Education, which issued a statement saying that the proposed lawsuit "appears to rest on a flawed cost study" of the law.

"The President and Secretary Spellings believe that all children can learn and that schools and districts should be held accountable for the academic achievement of every child," the department's statement said. "That's why it is very disappointing that officials in Connecticut are spending their time hiring lawyers while Connecticut's students are suffering from one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation" - a reference to lagging test scores by many low-income minority students in comparison to the performance of white, middle-class children.

"This is a sad day for students of Connecticut," the department said, adding that the state has received more than $750 million in No Child Left Behind federal funds since the law was signed.

Throughout the nation, a handful of local school districts have filed legal challenges related to No Child Left Behind, and some state legislatures have passed measures seeking more flexibility in the law, but Connecticut would be the first state to take its case to court, national experts said.

"I think this is going to be a significant event because there are other states that are teetering," said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "The thing that's interesting about Connecticut is that it has had a long history of [school] reform and has been pretty effective ... at dealing with a lot of the issues No Child Left Behind is concerned about."

David L. Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures said that the lawsuit is the result of Connecticut officials' requesting flexibility from the federal government "and having the door slammed in their face. ... "

"What Connecticut clearly is feeling is the same frustration they are feeling in other states - Texas, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin," he said.

Blumenthal said that he will base the lawsuit on legal provisions, including a clause in the law itself, that prohibit the government from ordering new programs without providing enough money to support them.

The lawsuit drew a lukewarm response from Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who said Tuesday that she wondered if the money for the legal battle would be better spent in the classroom. She also questioned Connecticut's being the only plaintiff in the case.

"But to do this on our own, I'm not sure about it," she said.

In a letter last week to Spellings, Rell praised Connecticut's testing program and said that the state's requests for flexibility in interpreting the law had not been given thorough review.

Like several other states, Connecticut has clashed with the federal government over interpretation of the 3-year-old law.

Aside from asking for waivers on the expansion of testing, state officials have sought flexibility in testing special education students and children who do not speak English.

Federal officials have said they will reconsider some of those questions but have flatly rejected Connecticut's request to waive additional testing.

The Bush administration might be prepared to offer increased flexibility to states that show they are serious about raising achievement, according to a report Tuesday by the Associated Press. The report said that Spellings will outline a more flexible approach in a meeting this week with top school officials throughout the nation.

No Child Left Behind calls for a shakeup of schools that fail to make sufficient gains on standardized tests. The law is aimed at closing the academic achievement gap in which some groups of students, such as racial minorities and children from low-income families, lag behind others.

Schools that receive Title I money to help educate poor children and fail to make sufficient progress face increasingly stiff sanctions under the law, eventually including complete reorganization. A school can be cited even if a single group - such as special education students or low-income children - fails to make adequate progress.

Throughout the nation, many educators have complained that the law is punitive and puts too much emphasis on testing.

In Connecticut, Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg has said that the additional testing required under the law will cost millions of dollars more but will produce little benefit.

Blumenthal praised efforts by Sternberg to seek some latitude in applying the law but said she "has met with blind federal inflexibility."

Sternberg said she learned of the lawsuit only hours before Blumenthal's announcement. She said that the state will continue discussions with U.S. officials, but that legal action "is an avenue I think at this point has to be pursued."

Sternberg will issue a report today showing that many local districts will fall millions of dollars short as they attempt to fulfill requirements of the law. The report projected sample costs for three towns: Hamden, Killingly and New Haven.

Even taking into account additional federal money, the towns would fall short, the report said. It estimated that by 2008, Killingly would have to commit staffing and additional spending worth about $3.8 million, while Hamden would commit an extra $8.7 million and New Haven $10.1 million.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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